Barrak Alzaid: “Pink and Blue”

15 June, 2022
Louma Rabah, acrylic on can­vas — 130x100cm, 2020 (cour­tesy Louma Rabah).

 

At a mall in Kuwait, I watched two Fil­ip­ina domes­tic work­ers seat­ed at a bench, laugh­ing, shar­ing an inti­mate moment. Their pink and blue uni­forms stood out in a drab sea of white dish­dashas and black abayas. 

 

Barrak Alzaid

 

Muzak was the back­ground track to the chat­ter of Hin­di, Ara­bic and Taga­log weav­ing through the mall. My paper shop­ping bags thumped against my thighs, pour­ing over with fast fash­ion. I need­ed to beat the surge of traf­fic that would inch its way to the mosque as soon as the call to prayer rang through. Instead, I stood in won­der at the laugh­ter that cleaved the din, a pair of Fil­ip­ina women dressed in pink and blue scrubs with their heads thrown back and their mouths open, a pic­ture of exquis­ite joy.


“Hay nako,” Carmel­la mut­ters and shifts her weight on the bench, reach­ing for her phone. Fin­gers wor­ry at the vol­ume but­ton. It pings. She clasps Mary Rose’s hand, and her pas­tel pink uni­form press­es against her friend’s baby blue sleeve.

“Look,” says Mary Rose. “We are like East­er eggs, per­fect for today.”

She points at a large Sty­ro­foam rab­bit grasp­ing a bas­ket of pas­tel foam eggs. A swarm of chil­dren take self­ies, girls with thin wrists cov­ered in ban­gles along­side girls swad­dled in hijabs. Carmel­la sucks a breath in and pulls her upper lip taut across her teeth. She rubs her phone until it wakes, reveal­ing a por­trait of two girls and a young woman. Carmel­la cra­dles the phone and releas­es a sigh.

Mary Rose wants her friend to smile, shrug it off and say eh, sa ganun mala­ga aug taboo ng buhay. That’s how life goes. To move on with the dai­ly grind as Fil­ip­inas do.

“My friend lis­ten. There will be an oppor­tu­ni­ty next year, eh diba?”

Carmel­la taps the lock but­ton on and off. Click. Fam­i­ly. Click. Clock. Click. Fam­i­ly. Click. Clock.

She squeezes her eyes shut and press­es a fist to her fore­head, “I wait­ed two years to vis­it them. Madam promised I could return for Christ­mas. Madam said they would not trav­el, but sir sur­prised her with a holiday.” 

The plunk­ing Muzak pipes in from grainy speak­ers. Their voic­es are still warm from singing hymns so Mary Rose pan­tomimes a micro­phone and sings along to Celine Dion.

The call to prayer cuts the song off, one diva upstag­ing anoth­er. A sig­nal that they have fif­teen min­utes until their employ­ers’ dri­vers com­plete their prayers. Carmel­la hums the rest of the song even as the muezzin drones on and on. Mary Rose protests, but Carmel­la ignores her, then nuz­zles into her friend’s shoul­der to mask her giggling. 

“You will see your fam­i­ly.” Mary Rose rubs her friend’s back, “Remem­ber we have our duties. It is good to sup­port our children’s edu­ca­tion, to sup­port our par­ents.” She paus­es as a draft of air con­di­tion­ing sweeps the warmth from her voice, “If there was a sta­ble job in the Philip­pines, I could go back. Bong will start col­lege this year and he will work less. My chil­dren need me to send mon­ey back.”

Carmel­la cracks her knuck­les one by one and kneads her palms togeth­er. She tries steady­ing her voice but it ris­es sharply, “You raised your chil­dren already, and then you came here. I left my chil­dren with my sis­ter when they were very young.” Carmel­la points at her phone screen. “See? Here is my sis­ter and my daugh­ters. I pay for school, I pay for clothes. But I am not their moth­er. To them I am like a big sister.”

“Ayah Carmel­la! You are always their moth­er, don’t make them worry.”

“Of course I don’t tell them my worries.”

Mary Rose nods. “Remem­ber, I always tell you, it is good you are with a fam­i­ly that speaks Eng­lish. When I came here six years ago my agency put me with a fam­i­ly that only spoke Ara­bic. They thought I am ungas–ignorant. Always shout­ing, shout­ing. Shout­ing at each oth­er, shout­ing at me. Madam always fix­ing the hijab they made me wear.”

Carmella’s lips puck­er and she swears, “Pucha putang ina! You always tell me the same thing!”

Mary Rose shakes her head as if sift­ing those mem­o­ries back into the past. “Lis­ten to me. Our madams respect us and our sirs do not harass us. Look at Isabel­la. After she was trapped inside the house for two weeks she ran away and hid in the desert until the embassy res­cued her. Like a spy movie.”

Carmel­la loosens the phone from Mary Rose’s grip. “Look, I’ll show you anoth­er spy movie.”

She pays for her own phone line, and can only afford local calls and texts. When she wants to call her fam­i­ly she uses the driver’s phone and pays him back for the data, so it takes a few attempts to con­nect to the mall wifi and the jin­gling mall music returns. Five min­utes to pick up.

A tall con­crete house emerges on the tiny screen. It could have been any house in any neigh­bor­hood across the coun­try. A Fil­ipino and Fil­ip­ina dart out a side door. The woman looks at the cam­era, her brow fur­rowed, eyes squint­ing in the sun, and shuf­fles across the court­yard in san­dals and socks. The man’s mir­rored Oak­leys bounce off his chest and he drags a small suit­case. The cam­era fol­lows them into a dark tint­ed car. Once inside, light sobs rack the woman’s shoulders.

“Ayah, I’ve seen this video, every­one is shar­ing it.” Mary Rose’s eyes are shiny and her smile stretch­es thin across her face. “The embassy arranged this escape, and they post­ed this video to give aware­ness of the sit­u­a­tion. But they got into trou­ble with this country’s government.”

“Mis­sion Impos­si­ble, na?” Carmel­la deletes the brows­ing his­to­ry. “I have to be care­ful, madam and sir check my phone, I don’t want them to think I want to escape like this lady.”

They sit still, shoul­ders press against each oth­er, fin­gers braid togeth­er and start to laugh. They laugh when their phones buzz in uni­son. They stand and embrace, still laugh­ing, their blue and pink forms eclipsed almost imme­di­ate­ly by the swirl of black abayas and white dish­dashas weav­ing past them into the shops.

 

abayasdisdashashijabIslamKuwaitmallsmosqueservants

Barrak Alzaid is writer of memoir, prose, poetry and art criticism whose current project, Fabulous, relates his queer coming of age in Kuwait and represents a story of family fracture and reconciliation. His poem Fa’et was awarded a first place prize by Nasiona Magazine in their inaugural micro nonfiction and poetry competition. Excerpts of his memoir are published in several anthologies including The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human: Tales from Many Muslim Worlds (Penguin SEA), Emerge: 2018 Lambda Fellows Anthology, and in New Moons, an anthology of Muslim writing edited by Kazim Ali (Redhen Press). He has conducted fellowships, workshops and residencies through Delfina Foundation, Fine Arts Works Center and Lambda Literary Retreat. He is a founding member of the artist collective GCC and tweets @barrakstar.

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